Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn

I always liked the smell of cheap hotels. Even when I was a child I knew that the combination of burnt coffee, ashtrays, bleach, and chlorine meant that we were on the move. My parents mostly stayed in Holiday Inn type places, but there was the occasional Motel 6, where the  numbered, multi-colored doors faced the parking lot and we would be herded in and put to sleep before we heard the sounds of domestic violence or mercenary sex. My dad even let us put quarters in the vibrating beds. We thought it was a ride: “Do it again, do it again!” we would shout, unable to appreciate the inappropriate nature of our exclamations. My parents would exchange futile glances and shrug, throwing us each another quarter.

It wasn’t just the smell of cheap hotels. I also liked the smell of gasoline and the way that it clung to my hair. Standing by the pump, you could almost taste it when it got humid.  Rest stops, gas stations, and highway diners, brought comforts with kitsch, and infused me with a passion for wanderlust. My first memory is sitting in the back of a car, the sun is too hot on my legs, but I am looking out the window, mesmerized by the way the world gets fuzzy in motion.

There is something dirty about travel, something implied, not only in the smell of motels, gas stations, fast food wrappers, and truckers, but in the lifestyle. The waywardness of a nomad; the dirtiness of being homeless.

On one of our road trips to California, my mother, a staunch Catholic, and one of the most compassionate, but guilt-ridden, human beings I know, decided to pick up a Mexican girl and drive her from Tacoma, Washington to L.A. All I remember was that it was some kind of 7 degrees of separation situation, probably a network of helping hands, where my mother learned that this 19 year old was suffering from a drug addiction and an abusive boyfriend. She had no food, no money, and needed a ride to find her father. She was homeless or on the way to being so. In a swift act of Christian charity, we drove south, my mother, my brother, sister, the Mexican girl, and me, trundling towards Hollywood in a Chevy Minivan.

Her name was Rosario and she sat, her skin taut and clear, pulled tighter with a ponytail, listening to a Walkman and staring out the window. She didn’t speak. At first we thought she didn’t speak English until after crossing the California border she said she had to go to the bathroom.  I wanted to ask her about what happened, how she got the black eye, and whether she even wanted to go to L.A. Like many acts of charity,  we wanted to believe we were doing her some huge favor. Her stoicism and dark glances made me think she didn’t even want the ride.

Traveling often connotes an escape, a life left behind, a reason to be on the move: crime, love, or debts. When I was younger, I thought that there must be something deeply wrong with Rosario. I was fascinated by her story, her troubles, a complex narrative I couldn’t quite grasp from the walls of our suburban home. I was petrified and intrigued, and knew she was still living on the outside of that family minivan. That was the divide and Rosario felt it clearly. She smelled pity like we smelled cigarettes from the pockets of her leather jacket.

On the third day, Rosario was comfortable eating our road snacks and digging into our bags of candy. She even let my brother borrow her mixed tape for a few hours. That night, like any other kids indulging in the motel experience, we dove in the pool.  After smoking a cigarette, Rosario opened the sliding door to the small room and explained in a whisper that she didn’t have a swimsuit. My mother offered her a swimsuit to borrow and we spent the evening doing cannonballs, diving beneath the surface of the over- chlorinated pool.

Rosario was something of a legend. She never said good bye and when we dropped her off, it was sketchy. I think we left her with the estranged father outside a gas station. I wondered about what her life was like once she got to California—maybe she became a stripper. Maybe she and her father both got deported. Maybe she got on the first flight home back to Seattle. We never found out what happened to her.

I suspect my mother felt we had done our part. At least she wasn’t homeless. Rosario just needed to be somewhere, she just needed to land.

Open Road, Old Friend

(The Only Thing You Cannot Cure is This Stomach Ache)

I have been living in my car for three months. The first two weeks, my luggage was kept neatly in bags. Besides opening a trunk instead of a closet, a string of awkward sleeping positions, and the consequences of eating highway food, I feel that I have successfully adapted to road life. I accept the fact that my clothes will always feel wrinkled and wet, my digestive system is perpetually “off” and no simple conversation derives from the confession, “I am living in my car.”

Advice for lonesome lady road travelers:

1)     Try to blend in. I woke up and brushed my teeth on a dirt road on the fringes of the French Quarter using the leftover cup of Jack, Coke and melted ice to rinse (yes, like Ke$ha). With no time to shower, I was wearing the same clothes and back on the road. Even after convincing myself that this was a totally average Thursday morning, I learned an important lesson: try to blend in, even at the gas station. Without preparation, you may find yourself approached by a local who suspects that you are not just an innocent traveler. You may think that spraying perfume helps, but in this case, you are probably exacerbating the primary issue, being, party shoes in the morning, at a gas station off I-10 = the wrong kind of attention.

2)     Remember, sanity and health are relative. Driving long hours can be therapeutic and when lost in thought, it is easy to forget that essentially, you have been contained in a 6 x 5 moving box. You have spent hours, days, and weeks consuming ungodly amounts of sugar, fat, and caffeine. The music you think that has been in a steadily changing and random is actually on repeat. You have engaged a philosophical debate with the GPS girl. The voices in your head are no longer ponderous road thoughts, they are actually the sound of you losing your shit.

3)      Don’t tell people you live in a car. This may seem obvious, but I made the mistake of letting it be known that my address is actually my license plate.  The first and most common reaction is pity: “Oh no, are you okay?” People have started to believe that I am unintentionally homeless . When I start talking, the Christians are disappointed to find out that I don’t really need to be saved. Then there are the questions, “What are you doing? Don’t you need to work? Why did you leave?” All questions with a series of generic answers that smell spoiled, like the leftovers in my backseat. None invoke any pride. I have also been asked if I need a roommate. All awkward conversations that are best avoided by not making this seemingly simple confession.

Even Thoreau Wouldn’t Sit in a Hot Tub Alone

I left Chicago bound to Gatlinburg, Tennessee where I was offered a cabin on the border of Smokey Mountain National Park. It was strange occupying a four-bedroom cabin with a hot tub alone, but I was determined to have some Thoreauvian experience at some point in my life: a spiritual cleansing of the mind, a return to nature, a rebellious turn on society at large.  Not that Thoreau sipped wine and texted from a third floor balcony with a view, but, it is about as close as I will ever get to Walden.

I drove up winding roads with only my Ipod and the lilting voice of my GPS: “You are now on track,” or “You are now off track” has an increasingly existential ring. I listen without questioning. I wait for answers. With modern access to information, there is no room for error. There is an unhealthy personal dependence on technology: I have a friend who watches the arrow on her GPS instead of the road. She locates the little red flags on her screen instead of actual landmarks. I think that she finds her GPS faulty when it cannot locate her boyfriend.

When my GPS loses signal in the middle of the wilderness, I turn to an antiquated last resort: asking a stranger for directions. There are no women in the gas station. The men are grabbing beer out of the fridge, eyeing up lifesize cardboard pinup girls, or paying cash for one of the two pumps outside. I approach the teller at the gas station, who is wearing overalls and a black mesh baseball cap, “Which way to Gaitlinburg?”

He gives me the kind of “you-stupid-tourist” smile and answers, “It’s real simple, just keep following the road, go through two stops and take a right. Keep following it til you see you got there.”

“About how far?”

“Couple miles.” I pull out a map and ask him to point out where we are and what road I should turn on.

“Now don’t make this too complicated on yourself, girlie, just go through two intersections and take a right, follow that all the way into town.” Wanting to trust in the simplicity of these directions and the kindness of strangers, I say thank you, wave and head back to my car.

As I am unlocking the door, a man with a cigarette in his mouth and a cut off t-shirt pulls up in a white truck: “I heard you was goin to Gaitlilnburg,” he says to me, the cigarette wagging.

“Yeah.”

“Well, you wanna follow me? I know a short cut.”

Before he gives any real indication of being a predator, I immediately start hearing dueling banjos and am horrified that my imagination gives way to these stereotypes. Before I can answer him, I am already tied up in some backwoods cabin, awaiting a lifetime of sex slavery and forced to raise the new generation of backwards southern progeny.

“No thanks,” I respond and make up a sloppy excuse about meeting a very large man. Poor guy, he probably really was going to Gaitlinburg. And knew a short cut.

I continue my drive up the mountains alone, where I chose to spend an entire week in complete isolation. It was lovely: the tree leaves were just beginning to crisp and redden, the air was mountain fresh, and the cicadas made for a nightly soundtrack. I was connected with nature, in the way I had intended, down to the ceremonious toss I gave each dead bird I found on the porch.

I always wanted to be one of those people who could spend night after night, reading or writing, or just drinking wine alone. The truth was that, in the cabin, despite my inclination to retreat, and a desire to find calm in isolation, I desperately wanted to talk to someone. Each day more urgently. I couldn’t bring myself to go down the mountains. I started to regret not following the man in the truck who offered me directions, if only for conversation. By the end of the week, I even started thinking that maybe a kidnapping wouldn’t be so bad. I went through each of the four bedrooms and wandered down the halls, wishing that if I shouted, someone would hear me. Cabin fever had set in. I even longed to hear the mocking voice of my GPS.

Loneliness comes in strange forms, and can rear its head even in the most unexpected places, like home. In this case, I had asked for it. It didn’t help that the cabin had five bedrooms, an eight person hot tub, and a large dinner table set with enough chairs for Thanksgiving dinner. I enjoyed all of these accoutrements alone. I had successfully retreated, but the entire act of hiding out in a cabin fell flat.

Yes, I had my Thoreauvian experience, but even Thoreau wouldn’t sit in a hot tub alone.

A Fetching Hello

I should have started this blog a few months ago, but it takes time to find purpose and meaning in what was ultimately, a rash decision.  I am writing from the road after putting all of my belongings in storage and leaving on an extended U.S./world-tour (*rockstar*) with an indeterminate ending. I feel like some modern incarnation of Kerouac and Blanche Dubois, two characters I don’t particularly admire, but each infinitely more compelling than Elizabeth Gilbert.

Years ago, I had planned to take a road trip around the U.S living out of my car and collecting stories from folks around the country. There would be no political agenda, theme, or directed questions.  I just wanted to talk. I like to talk. People like to talk. That summer I was inspired after meeting a cattle rancher in a small town near the Badlands.  Over bottled beers and whiskey, I listened to his stories about the roving herds, a son he had lost in a farming accident, and examined the scars on his hands.  In that moment, our regionalism was faint, our politics, irrelevant, and our humanness incensed. In our exchange, it felt, we were, not so far away.

Back then, I was about to start law school and any kind of road trip or extended travel seemed impossibly expensive and untenable. A pipe dream. Also, I was scared. Scared of leaving the comforts of my life, however tenously manufactured. Relationships, jobs, degrees, a closet full of clothes and shoes, the stability of my family all seemed to hauntingly cry, “You cannot be without.” I was scared of running out of money, becoming lonely, or, in the worst case, realizing I would have been better to just stay home. Rhetoric is palpable and it moves us.

Sometimes it takes a life-shakedown to get where we want to be. No one died. I do not have cancer. I did hit a turning point (or was it a wall?), when I realized that choices do matter. More importantly, I have them.  The answer was finally, “What the hell?”

This is not my rendition of Eat, Pray, Love or The Beach. I am not writing a travel narrative or a travel blog. You will not find stories about charming hostels, presumputous accounts of culture, or tourist insight.  I will never use the word “amazing” to describe my experiences. There will be no photographs of me in front of iconic structures.  I will not bore you with the details of transportation or advise you where to find the “best” local food and drink. I probably won’t even mention local food culture unless I get poisoned or roofied and I think it is funny.  I will, however, be singing karaoke in as many cities and countries as possible.

I am writing people, not place. So…if these stories are any good, you should forget that I am moving at all.